Here’s How to Excel as a Channel Sales Manager

Do you have the chops to be a top channel sales manager? Here’s our guide on how to succeed.

Channel sales managers wear many hats. A channel sales manager is responsible for increasing revenue through indirect sales channels. As a channel sales manager, it’s your job to recruit, train, support, analyze and manage channel partners, all while ensuring they meet your company’s needs. 

To be successful in the role you need to balance meaningful partner relationships with the output and deliverables your company requires and maintain communication between very different departments. You also need to keep revenue in mind, though you’re not a sales team — nor can you operate like one. 

“The difference is that you have to have the big vision of building out these different go-to-market strategies with your partners, but at the same time be able to execute on the revenue and the day-to-day so that you can continue to get resourcing, funding and investment in the channel,” says Nicolette Lopes, PartnerStack’s Director of Channel Partnerships & Alliances.

To shed light on this role that’s essential to partner-led GTM motions, Lopes discusses some of the strategies, roles and skills it takes to be a successful channel sales manager. 

An image of an old fashioned key

Key responsibilities: What do channel sales managers do?

Lopes admits she’s biased, but she thinks channel roles are among the most interesting within an organization because they get to be involved with so many different arms. Channel sales managers get to work cross-functionally across the entire business, from sales to support to product teams and beyond. 

Their key responsibilities include: 

  • Recruiting and onboarding new channel partners
  • Providing partner support across the partner ecosystem including ongoing training and providing marketing materials
  • Measuring and reporting on performance of channel partners
  • And so much more

“You have to be able to operate in the world of sales, where you’re coordinating with your direct sales reps, the revenue they’re accountable for and having partner support there,” she says. “You also have to be really integrated with your customer success team to ensure any shared clients you have with your partners are properly supported.”

Lopes adds that it’s a good idea to align with product teams as well, since channel partners are essentially super users of your tool or network. Plus, those partners will influence the growth of the product, since they represent multiple potential customers at a time.

See more: Here’s the difference between channel sales and direct sales in 2024.

Skills successful channel sales managers should have

Another reason channel sales management is so exciting is that there are different approaches to tackling the job — it’s not like a streamlined sales process — so there’s room for innovation. Lopes says she’s seen people with all kinds of backgrounds succeed in the role, from creative thinkers to marketing leaders to systematic, business-minded folks. 

Something they all have in common is a vision on how to build a partnership that didn’t previously exist from the ground up  and the execution to make it successful.

“Someone who has the ability to tap into both [vision and execution] are the ones that do really well,” she says. 

No matter your business background, one essential soft skill all channel partnership managers need to have is relationship management. The relationships you forge with partners go beyond the typical 9-to-5 and don’t feel like a business relationship. 

“So many of our partners, we know when their birthdays are, we know what their kids are doing,” Lopes says. “You’re going to get texts and phone calls and WhatsApp and video calls from your partners a lot, because there’s a ton of excitement about what we’re doing together.”

She adds that if things are going well, partners will want to share that with you. This is an industry based on relationships and business will come if the relationships are solid. 

“So much of it is based on trust; it’s something you have to really build,” she adds. 

So many of our partners, we know when their birthdays are, we know what their kids are doing,” Lopes says. “You’re going to get texts and phone calls and WhatsApp and video calls from your partners a lot, because there’s a ton of excitement about what we’re doing together.”

Read more: The skills partner managers need to succeed.

Strategies for success for a channel sales manager

Successful channel sales managers are able to understand their channel partners, set clear objectives and targets, develop and implement individual strategies within each partnership, offer training and support, and communicate effectively. 

The best channel sales strategy any manager can implement though, is to be proactive. It’s important to treat each partnership in a unique way and to really get to know who that partner is and what their needs are, rather than only asking what the partnership can do for you. 

Lopes shares her tips for finding success in partnerships, “A lot of that is because people are hoping and expecting their partners to just come with opportunities and revenue for them. They don’t realize there are a lot of things you have to do proactively. The reality is partnerships don’t appear out of thin air unless you do the proactive work first.”

She says that when she’s talking to her partners, the conversations are typically focused on them, their business, the goals of the organization and what alignment they may have. Then, when she looks inward at PartnerStack, that’s the time to consider the output and deliverables partners may bring. But the two conversations are like different languages. 

For example, PartnerStack has a tiered structure within its partner program with gold, silver, and bronze levels where partners receive different privileges based on their tier. They can move up or down depending on how things change. 

“If I were to go to my partners and say, ‘Hey, you’re falling out of gold tier,’ that doesn’t mean anything to their business. It really doesn’t translate,” Lopes says. “You have to be able to speak two different languages depending on who you’re talking to and connect them for you and your team.”

Building and maintaining partner relationships

When you’re looking to grow your partnerships, it’s essential to have as many conversations as you can. There are good fit partners, bad fit partners and everything in between. But by learning as much as you can about each business, you will begin to see how other partnerships work. 

“It’s a lot of time just trying to understand when you have a partner you’d like to work with, what does that look like?” Lopes says. She says it’s essential to ask questions like what a partnership would feel like and how they will engage with you. Figure out how they interact with their clients, what kind of support they offer and imagine what will and won’t work if the partnership comes to fruition. 

“That information is really valuable because you can build things up in a way that makes sense for your partners versus spending time building something in isolation and then putting it on our partners — who may say it doesn’t really work for their business,” Lopes adds.

Consider industry-specific strategies that will optimize sales, know what your partners are looking for and select partners based on your needs to continue maximizing success

Related: A guide to quarterly business reviews for partnership teams.

Effective strategies for channel sales managers

One good strategy when entering a new partnership is to ensure you’re very clear on the desired outcome of that channel partner and then communicate that effectively back to your business. Remember, it can be like speaking a new language so in order to maximize everyone’s time and effort, you need to be able to translate.  

“If you’re going to set up a new go-to-market channel or develop new partnerships, communicate what that will do to your organization before you’ve gone and spent all the time and resources to actually build it,” Lopes says, adding that a partnership can take six months to a year to get off the ground. 

“There’s a lot of talk in channel about the types of partners being affiliate or referral or reseller distribution. That means a lot less to the board,” she continues. “Cut those labels away and talk about what it’s actually going to do to your business and if that’s something your business cares about. Spend your time there.”

Active partnerships and assigned partner accounts still involve a lot of management from strategic planning and problem-solving to communication, education and the streamlining or simplification of certain processes as the partnership continues. 

Finally, Lopes ends with some sage advice by stressing that channel sales and partnerships are a small industry and the relationships you build today can follow you throughout your career. Even if a partnership isn’t necessarily working out, it’s still necessary to treat those partnerships like the important relationships they are.

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